PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Republicans are pushing a series of bills that they say would instill more confidence in elections but that critics worry will make it harder for people to vote.
Despite Gov. Kristi Noem claims that the state's voting system is one of the best in the nation, lawmakers pushing the bills say the legislation is needed in light of Donald Trump’s claim that November’s election was unfair, even though it has repeatedly been found to be fair by the country’s top elections officials and the courts.
Voting advocates and Democrats worry the fraudulent claims are being used to fuel a swift movement to clamp down on voting methods that allowed for the highest turnout for a presidential election in 50 years despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The state's Republican secretary of state, Steve Barnett, is trying to fend off efforts to curtail his ability to make sure people can vote. He has also struggled to get support from fellow Republicans for a proposal that would allow people to register to vote online, which he says would help rural voters and actually make voter registration records more accurate.
“Voting is such a fundamental right of our democracy, so we should be doing everything we can to increase access to the ballot,” said Janna Farley, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.
Barnett called features of the state's election system, including a 46-day window for absentee voting and the ability to send out absentee voting applications, “tools” that became essential for overseeing safe and secure elections during the pandemic.
Although Republican Rep. Drew Dennert praised the high turnout, he is bringing a bill that would bar the secretary of state from sending out applications for absentee voting. The House passed it this week, and it then headed to a Senate committee.
Dennert defended his proposal as a way “to make a good system better.” He didn't think it would make it harder for people to vote and said it would save taxpayers the cost of sending out applications to vote absentee.
But he said the main reason for the proposal, as well as another that would require election officials to stay at ballot counting locations until all votes are counted, was to restore confidence in elections after Trump's allegations.
The former president's claims were rejected by dozens of courts and were made even as a group of elections officials — including representatives of the federal government’s cybersecurity agency — deemed the 2020 presidential election the “the most secure in American history.” Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, also said he saw no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the election results.
With Barnett defending against the efforts to tighten the current election system, he has struggled to gain support for a proposal that would allow people to register to vote online, which he says would actually make voter rolls more accurate. Senate Republicans changed Barnett's bill to only allow people to update their voter registration, effectively blocking the online service from new voters.
Sen. Jim Bolin spearheaded the effort to change the bill after initially opposing it entirely. He felt that people had plenty of opportunities to register to vote, though he acknowledged that some people in rural parts of the state would have to drive more than 100 miles to the nearest courthouse.
“I’m not convinced it’s an absolutely reliable system,” he said of the online proposal.
Democrats say the watering down of the proposal amounts to voter suppression.
Sen. Troy Heinert, the Senate minority leader who lives on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, said people in his community have to drive 85 miles to a neighboring county to register to vote.
“It is voter suppression,” he said. “We know it, they know it. That’s the bad part.”
Barnett called the proposal passing the Senate a “step in the right direction." But he acknowledged that even a voter service like online registration that is available in most states could face greater skepticism this year in the House after Trump fueled doubts about the election.
“It opens up a whole new can of worms and I think those concerns trickle back into the state and get into the heads of people,” he said.